by Charlie Jane Anders
I’m a massive Charlie Jane Anders fan, from the days where she was running io9.com. I devoured her short fiction and fell in love with her spellbinding novel All the Birds in the Sky. So when I had the opportunity to join the blog tour for her newest book, The City in the Middle of the Night, I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.
My expectations were set incredibly high, and yet she still blew them all away: I binge read the book in less than two days, and even after finishing the last page I’m still caught there, and can’t get the story out of my head. Not that I want to: as I digest the book, I’m seeing more, understanding more, and loving it more.
A new book from the Hugo and Nebula Award-winning Charlie Jane Anders. On a planet that has never-changing zones of day and night, time means only what the government proclaims, and lost souls and disappeared bodies are shadow-bound and savage. One such pariah, sacrificed to the night, forms a bond with an enigmatic beast, and will rise to take on the entire planet–before it can crumble beneath the weight of human existence.
Set on January, a planet tidally locked with its star, the city of Xiosphant lies in the strip of habitable land along the terminator. To the one side, the heat of a planet baked under a neverending sun. To the other, the frozen desert of a world that has never seen sunlight. In the strip of twilight in between, human colonists have established a great city, self-sufficient, a testament to survival. But in order to thrive, one must live in a dystopian nightmare.
In order for the city to work, people must all sleep at the same time (between shutters up and shutters down, a curfew punishable by violence), eat the right food at the right time, work, live, die, at the same time. Timefulness (mindfulness of the time of day) even saturates their language, as the conjugation you use depends on what time it is. You day to day life is mapped out, as well as the entirety of your life ahead of you.
In the midst of all this, lives Sophie, a quiet girl from the dark side of town, attending university on a scholarship she earned for her distinguished studying, desperate to avoid the life her social class has laid out ahead of her. There she meets Bianca, a beautiful affluent girl who dreams of changing the world. Together, they might make a difference.
Like with All the Birds in the Sky, Anders takes idealistic youth who want to change the world, and bring them face to face with reality. Sophie is dragged through a traumatic experience that almost kills her, and she deals with the aftermath for the rest of the book. Bianca’s own reaction to this violence is with more violence, hoping to make change through revenge. These characters motivations are so real they feel like your own.
There was so much to love about this novel. Not only was the worldbuilding so perfect that I was fully immersed from the first page, but I couldn’t help but be attached to Sophie and the other characters that crossed the page. Especially Mouth, a nomad born on the road between the two major cities on January, is the last of her people, and struggles to fit in anywhere.
But what connected me most with this novel was the theme of culture. As a girl born in one country, raised in another, by parents who come from neither, my own culture comes into question every stinking day. And through City, Anders explores what it means to be uprooted, how cultures are built, or how they are forgotten. As the characters perspectives on their own place in the world shifts, I found myself exploring my own feelings of cultural identity through their different eyes. It felt so deeply personal, like a conversation held between me and the book.
Some fit more in the rigidly defined society of Xiosphant, where their lives are controlled, but they are comfortable. Everyone has food, a home, a future. No one speaks about the past, and it’s disconcerting to bring up your heritage, where your family was from on Earth. And then you have a polar opposite in the other major city, Argelo, which is more like an open-air bazaar, a libertarian paradise only with the real consequences such a free-for-all would create. Time there is impossible to tell, and heritage is embraced, along with new ideas, art, and music. And in the middle, there is only the road, a dangerous place where being alone means certain death.
And in the end, after Anders explores what it means to belong to a society or culture, she goes deeper – and asks you what it means to be human. The so-called ‘crocodiles’ which the humans of January hunt and fear are the native intelligent life of the planet, and they have their own culture and world. Are we visitors on their land? What kind of colonists are we, friendly or cruel? The last part of the novel is beautiful and distinct: it feels like you’re drifting in a dream, going beyond the human experience. And it was so… hopeful. It made me want to be so much more than I am right now.
There is so much more the author explores through this book, I feel as if I need to reread it right away to see what I might have missed. This is a story of control: how our control has ecological consequences and human ones. It’s a story about our need to have someone to believe in, or believe in us. How our idea of the person we love may be quite different from the person they truly are, and how it is so hard to admit when we have been betrayed by a person we thought worthy of our trust.
This book was the perfect read for me: great science fiction with a cool science-based premise (I’m an astrophysics masters student working with a planetary science supervisor. This book is gold.) and complex exploration of humanity and culture, a question that I struggle with myself. It feels as if the author was writing just for me.
A quick question to Charlie Jane herself!
Readcommendations: It’s been three years since the release of All the Birds in the Sky. How has the writing experience been different for you in creating The City in the Middle of the Night compared to AtBitS? Have you found it ‘easier’ in the sense that you have already published, or has it been more complicated because of the critical acclaim your last book received? Were there differences that surprised you?
Charlie Jane Anders: It’s been such a crazy whirlwind! I’ve been just amazed and blown away by the response to All the Birds in the Sky. Makes me really kind of nervous about putting out another book and having to live up to that buzz. On the other hand, after spending years writing novels that never got published, it’s great that I can now come up with a new book, and it actually appears on shelves.
Massive thank you to Titan Books for inviting me to be a part of this blog tour, and providing me with a copy of The City in the Middle of the Night. I also want to thank them for putting me in touch with the author, and thank Charlie Jane Anders for not only answering my question, but also for writing this remarkable book.